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In Drought-Ridden California, the Classic Lawn Loses Ground

By Denise Valenzuela

Posted in

With help from public rebates, yards are being redefined as grass
gives way to less thirsty materials, including decomposed granite.

SAN DIEGO — Just a year ago, the Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club — which bills itself as having an “exquisitely manicured, visually breathtaking” golf course — featured the same traditional rolling hills of grass found at golf clubs around the country.

But then came the $4 million renovation. With shovels and bulldozers, out went 54 acres of turf, nearly half the lawn on the course. Walkways that were once grass were replaced with shredded redwood bark, known here as “gorilla hair” for its coarse appearance and the way it feels underfoot. Large stretches of fairway are now covered in decomposed granite, which Kevin

Still, the club did not have to spend a penny: The local water district paid for the entire thing. It used a fund — now empty — from the larger Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that offered rebates to homeowners and others to rip out water-guzzling grass and replace it with drought-friendly alternatives.

The cash-for-grass program has existed for years in Southern California, but it reached a pinnacle this year, as the drought intensified and local water districts increased the size of the rebates, sometimes to as much as $4 a square foot. The Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to most of urban Southern California, has spent more than $450 million on rebates in the last two years — including the $4 million for Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club.

But the costly initiatives are not simply about conservation. In some ways, the program is an attempt to change the state’s outdoor aesthetic, shifting it away from the green lawns that for generations have been an emblem of the California dream — not only for residents but also for people who grew up watching shows like “The Brady Bunch” and “Melrose Place” and considered a perfect yard to be a Southern California birthright.

“I think people will look back at this time period and say this was the moment when we started a trend,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, predicting that interest in lawn replacement will continue even if the rebates do not. After all, water is more expensive now, and there are fines for using too much.

The Metropolitan Water District thought that the additional $350 million allocated to the rebate program in the region for this year would last through December. Instead, it was claimed in months. At one point, the district was paying out $15 million in rebates each week.

Never has another state spent this kind of money on consumer rebates, and CA certainly won’t be able to sustain it going forward. The state’s Department of Water Resources has begun its own, albeit much smaller, program to fund similar rebates in other regions. The California 2015 Turf Replacement Initiative, which went into effect on April 1, called for the removal of 50 million square feet of lawns and ornamental turf. Just a quarter of the $22 million allocated for rebates in the rest of the state has been claimed so far, perhaps a sign of persistent resistance to ripping out grass.

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